First published online by Luke Bainbridge.
At times, when he’s talking about iLL Manors, the film that he has written and directed, Ben Drew, aka multiplatinum-selling rapper and singer Plan B, is almost spitting. Not spitting as in the street parlance for rapping, but literally spitting; such is his impassioned, forceful, expletive-peppered delivery as he talks about society’s failure to tackle and nurture its disadvantaged youth. “This film is me talking about this shit that I’m also talking about in my music and as a human being. Stuff I think we need to address; we need to understand why these fucked-up things happen, so that we can educate ourselves going forward and try to prevent them from happening again, you know what I’m saying?
“A lot of people outside this environment don’t believe it exists,” he continues. “So in the film, rather than glamorise it, I’m trying to say to people this is the true, dark reality. This is what happens. It’s not cool. No drug dealer really has the last laugh.”
Dark reality is, if anything, an understatement. The film is an unapologetic and at times unnerving and uncomfortable drama, a depiction of life in the most unloved and unforgiving streets of east London, seen through the interwoven lives of its dysfunctional characters, linked and part-narrated by six new Plan B tracks. Starring established British actors such as Riz Ahmed (aka rapper Riz MC) and Natalie Press alongside unknowns such as Keith Coggins (Drew’s godfather in real life) and Ryan De La Cruz, it shows the spirals of hopelessness and violence that vulnerable individuals can easily be sucked in to.
ILL Manors is not a manifesto or a direct polemic, but, like many of the best protest artforms, concentrates on capturing a mood – of desolation and anxiety. Rather than judging or preaching, it’s more concerned with encouraging debate about the root of the problems it presents and demonstrating how they can have a domino effect on people’s lives. It’s also a surprisingly accomplished piece of work for a directorial debut and Drew, you could argue, is becoming a much-needed spokesman for an alienated sector of our society that feels it doesn’t have a voice.
“I just wanted to say, ‘They’re not all scum,’” says Drew of his characters. “They act the way they do because of the shit that happened to them that wasn’t their fault. It’s not your fault if your parents abandon you and put you in a home. It’s not your fault, but there comes a time when you have to take responsibility for your actions. But for a lot of them, there’s no one there saying, ‘All that shit that happened to you in the past is fucked up, man, and I feel really sorry for you, but you’re just repeating that bad and negative energy through what you’re doing and you can’t keep blaming the past for the way you’re acting now.’”
ILL Manors the film follows iLL Manors the single and will itself be followed by an accompanying album of the same name. Filming on the feature had almost finished last summer when the London riots erupted and the single was Drew’s reaction to the riots. The Guardian called it “the first great mainstream protest song in years“; shadow health minister Jamie Reed compared it to a Marvin Gaye classic and tweeted that it “really does remind of What’s Going On”.
It polarised opinion, though, and after what he saw as ill-founded criticisms of lyrics such as: “There’s no such thing as broken Britain/ We’re just bloody broke in Britain/ What needs fixing is the system/ Not shop windows down in Brixton/ Riots on the television/ You can’t put us all in prison!”, Drew said in a statement: “If you’re born into a family that’s had enough money to educate you properly, you’re privileged. You’re not better than anyone else, you’re just lucky. Certain sectors of middle England, not all of them, but the ignorant ones, need to wake up and realise that and stop ridiculing the poor and the less fortunate.”
To some, 28-year-old Drew may seem an unlikely polymath, but there’s always been a more complex character beneath the surface sheen of his soulful smash The Defamation of Strickland Banks. His debut, Who Needs Actions When You Got Words, was a grittier rap album that tackled similar issues to iLL Manors. He’s also acted in the Noel Clarke films Adulthood and 188.8.131.52., and alongside Michael Caine in Daniel Brown’s Harry Brown. More recently, he was chosen to play George Carter alongside Ray Winstone in the remake of The Sweeney.
While growing up, although music was his first love, film came a close second. “I loved films, but all we wanted to watch were horror movies like Poltergeist and Nightmare on Elm Street,” he says. “As I got older, I got really bored of Hollywood. Then one day, someone told me to watch La Haine [Mathieu Kassovitz's 1995 urban French modern classic] because it was on TV. I thought, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, it’s black and white and has subtitles’, but they said, ‘No, you’ve got to watch it’, so I did and loved it. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of cinema that was so much edgier than the Hollywood movies I grew up with.”
ILL Manors is not autobiographical, but is set in Forest Gate, where Drew grew up, one and a half miles east of the Olympic Park, and based on things that happened to him or his friends. With his father absent from the age of five months, the disruptive Drew was kicked out of school aged 16 and sent to a pupil referral unit called the Tunmarsh Centre in Plaistow.
Drew credits it and early counselling with turning his life around, as it was the first time anyone encouraged him creatively and asked him to question why he was so angry. “I’ve had counselling since year eight. They called it sports counselling in my school, because otherwise kids would say, ‘I ain’t mad, I ain’t going to see a therapist!’ So they called it sports counselling so they could say, ‘Oh, it’s just because you’re aggressive during sports’. Now I’m older I can see that name was bollocks; it was just counselling, but it was great, I loved it. It did me a world of good.” He is currently back at his old unit, making a documentary, and was saddened to see the teacher who had helped him change his life is now gone.
“There used to be a big old music room there and an amazing music teacher called Cliff Earlye . He helped me massively, so when I went back I was looking forward to seeing him. Unfortunately, he had died and they couldn’t find anyone to replace him; someone with the patience and the motivation to engage with the kids like he did. All the music equipment has gone as well, because it was all his, so the old music room is just an office now. I was so depressed when I saw it.”
Rather than whisk through with a film crew, Drew made a conscious decision to find the time to sit down and talk to the kids about themselves. “I really want to show the kids my film, but some of them are 13 years old so I can’t – they’re too young, although half of me is thinking, ‘You know what, they’ve been exposed to so much more shit than that.’ I think they could learn so much from the film and I really want them to see it and talk about it with them.”
This desire to change what he sees as relentless negative portrayals of the young and disenfranchised is a theme Drew returns to again and again. It was also the core message of his impassioned speech at the Observer‘s TEDx event in March and he is still working on the plans he outlined in his speech to create an “umbrella organisation” that will help what he calls “vigilante social workers”. He’s also involved with the 1Xtra Academy that, following Radio 1′s Hackney weekend, aims to offer 10,000 teenagers masterclasses in everything from music to acting, fashion to radio, with fellow ambassadors such as Leona Lewis, Riz Ahmed and EastEnders stars.
When I ask him who the film is for, he says without a pause: “The kids that are living that life. These kids are angry and fucked up and I am angry and fucked up. But I’m starting to calm down and I’m starting to see the bigger picture. I want to give them some knowledge and wisdom. You might say, ‘Get over yourself Plan B!’ Whatever, cool. I know that for me to want to teach another human being is not coming from a negative place. As human beings, we’re compelled to teach and to learn, that’s part of the beauty of being human. What the fuck is the point of us being here if we’re not going to learn nothing or pass nothing on?”